Writing and Healing: The Joys of Collaboration

by Pamela Jane on July 8, 2012

Writing and Healing LogoPost #40 – Women’s Memoirs, Writing and Healing – Kendra Bonnett and Matilda Butler

The Joys of Collaboration

Pamela Jane Bell
Regular guest blogger, children’s book author and coach. Pamela is currently writing her memoir. Pamela’s first book for adults, Purr and Petulance or Pride and Prejudice and Kitties will be out in 2013. Please visit her website at http://www.austencats.com

guitarI love writing alone with only the twittering of the birds outside my window and the voices of my characters to keep me company.  But there are times when the idea of collaborating looks really good – the give and take, pursuit of a common goal, and sharing of fun and frustrations.  Yet our creative process is so individual, so peculiar to each of us, that the integration of talents and temperaments needed for a harmonious collaboration is rare.

If the idea of collaborating appeals to you, but you haven’t found the right project, or the project hasn’t found its time, don’t be discouraged.  My friend Debbie and I have been collaborating on one project (i.e. crazy scheme) or another since we met in high school.  Back then, we were both learning to play the guitar and we indulged in the fantasy of becoming the first great white women blues guitarists.  We planned to elaborate on our adventures in a novel about two teenage girls hanging out with the old blues musicians we admired, such as the Reverend Gary Davis or Mississippi John Hurt, whose identity we cleverly concealed by renaming the character “Alabama Joe Sore.”  (OK, we were teenagers after all.)  Although we did once meet the real-life Reverend Gary Davis and his wife in their hotel room over the Retort Café in Detroit, our fantasy of living and playing the blues never came to pass.

During the 1970s, when Debbie and I were both living in San Francisco, we spent many evenings after work drinking cappuccinos in coffee housescoffee and making plans to collaborate on everything from a best-selling book or a prime-time TV show (I mean if you’re going to have a fantasy you might as well make it a good one) to a career counseling business called Cappuccino Careers.  The idea was to get people buzzed on caffeine and then help them come up with a career plan.  (After our own cappuccinos wore off, we never discussed this particular brilliant plan again.)

After I got married and Debbie graduated from law school, we got more serious about collaborating.  We developed an idea for a book of recipes for cats called The Purring Palate and spent several years, on and off, soliciting recipes from celebrities with cats, and writing a proposal.  Unfortunately, the book never sold.  Back then, in the 1980s, agents told us catthe cat craze couldn’t possibly last.  After that, we threw ourselves into a Henry James-inspired ghost story.  This was such a fabulous idea that it didn’t even need to be written – at least until after we took a highly necessary trip to a remote island in Maine to research the setting.  All we got out of that was some really great lobster.

Our next project was “The Jane Austen Workout Book.”   A nice catchy title.  The only problem was that neither of us had the faintest idea what the book was supposed to be about.  As the years passed, we laughed about how successful our collaborations had been.  “Everything we touch turns to gold!” I joked.

Then one morning in 2006, I woke up with an idea that I truly felt could not miss. “Purr and Petulance or Pride and Prejudice and Kitties”  ­– a book of wacky photos of cats juxtaposed with the wicked humor of Jane Austen.  Better than Cliffs Notes: the adorable meets the absurd.

This idea shouted for collaboration – for someone to work, play, and laugh with.  Like me, Debbie is a cat-admirer and Jane Austen-lover, as well as an accomplished photographer.  And so yet another collaboration was born.  Slowly, we honed our vision for the book, wrote a proposal, and watched several initially enthusiastic agents decline when our vision of the book didn’t match theirs, or they had second thoughts about the logistics of photographing cats in Regency settings.  Still, I kept on doggedly submitting the proposal to agents (no offense to the cat’s indomitable will).Mittens with Pen

What about collaborating on a memoir?  Recently, while working on the high school chapter of my own memoir, I emailed an old friend:

Nancy, Nancy,

I’m crazy today

Trying to remember

What the inside of my mind

Looked like yesterday

I knew Nancy would come back with something colorful – a vivid memory of being sixteen, and what it felt like to share our minds, our thoughts and our crazy dreams.  Her brush strokes always help make the canvas richer, and I hope my memories do the same for her.  Memoir invites collaboration through exploring, recreating and celebrating the past.

Which brings me to Matilda Butler and Kendra Bonnett’s thirty-plus years of friendship and collaboration.  Theirs is an inspiring history.  Matilda and Kendra have collaborated on Rosie’s Daughters, womensmemoirs.com, and their new book, Writing Alchemy: How to Write Fast and Deep. And they always seem to have fun creating together.  That is a collaboration we can all celebrate.

In the meantime, after six years and dozens of agents, Debbie and I recently found a publisher for our book, “Purr and Petulance” – our first project to come to fruition.  But the real collaboration started over fifty years ago with our dream of living and playing the blues with the legendary musicians we loved and admired. Unfortunately, Bonnie Raitt beat us to that one.

Bonnie Raitt with John Lee Hooker

Bonnie Raitt with John Lee Hooker

But it was a great idea all the same.


Do you have any experiences collaborating?  Please leave us a comment and tell us about about it how it worked (or didn’t) what you would do differently, or how you imagine the perfect collaboration?

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Pamela Jane Bell is the author of twenty-seven children’s books, and is currently completing her memoir on how she became a children’s book author.

Her newest children’s book Little Goblins Ten (Harper, illustrated by Jane Manning) is a humorous riff on of the classic country rhyme “Over in the Meadow.”  A Christmas sequel, Little Elfie One, will be out in 2014.  Little Goblins Ten was recently reviewed in The New York Times:

“Readers are rewarded with ample humor and wit… there’s a sweetness to the parental-offspring interactions in the playful, alliterative text.”—New York Times Book Review

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Each month Pamela Jane Bell gives us something new to consider.

Pamela’s other hat, that of a children’s author, gives her a unique perspective. If you have children or grandchildren you’ll want to check out Pamela’s new lovely, illustrated book — Little Goblins Ten — that received a starred review by Kirkus and a review by Publishers Weekly that said, “In a gently spooky spin on “Over in the Meadow” that counts up to 10, various ghouls and beasts groan, swoop, and haunt. Jane has fun playing within the nursery rhyme’s parameters…”

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Pamela-Jane-Bell, memoir writing, memoir and healingPamela Jane Bell has extensive experience mentoring children’s book authors, some of whom have gone on to highly successful careers. She is available to analyze manuscripts for any age level – board book to young-adult – and to suggest strategies for breaking in. Please contact Pamela if you are interested in having her help you write, revise, or submit a children’s manuscript.

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